Sunday, March 13, 2016

On Jeffrey Goldberg on Barack Obama

If Twitter is to be believed, there's been a bit of interest in Jeffrey Goldberg's 70-page article in The Atlantic on President Obama's foreign policy doctrine. Since I expect lots of better informed folks are having their say about it, I'd like to come at it from what I fear may be an unusual angle: the importance of story-telling.

On the simplest level, Goldberg's piece contains a story about his unusual access to this president. There can't be many others who repeatedly interview the president one-on-one, and then are given the chance to spend six hours over an extended period and in various places so as to write one article. Goldberg's not going to have that kind of access with President Trump or even President Clinton - tho for a while there he seemed to be laying the ground to create it with President Christie. Wasted effort, that.

 In a nutshell, the story Goldberg tells about Obama, and probably the story Obama wished Goldberg to tell, is that whatever he once was, nowadays Obama is a cerebral and calculating Realist, who will do what it takes to protect America but won't use military force for anything less - and whose definition of what threatens America is quite narrow; he also takes care not to be swayed by emotions or by public opinion trends, preferring to concentrate on rational interests - America's, and everyone else's.

This ends up highly unsatisfactory, to my mind. Start with the ideas Obama himself is influenced by, according to this article. He and Goldberg have both read Hobbes. They've probably both read Samantha Powers on genocide. They both allude to, and perhaps have both read, Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. Yet when they turn to formative stories from which to draw wisdom, their metaphors all seem to come from Hollywood. The Godfather. Batman! And of course, Star Trek, from which Goldberg draws the concept that Obama is Spokian, while too many voters may be Kirkian.

Surveying their philosophical reading list, there's no indication they've read Huntington's student, Francis Fukuyama. Which is regrettable, as Fukuyama could have explained to them that tribalism isn't a retreat from rationalism by frightened and benighted folks who can't clearly see their own best interests, which seems to be how Obama and Goldberg both understand it. Rather, tribalism is an ancient, venerable, and very powerful principle of organizing society, with a far more compelling attraction than modern enlightened humanism or democracy; in many societies it's the default, not some cheap populist escapism.

The Hollywood part is more troubling. It wasn't always so. The other day I spent some time watching Robert F Kennedy speeches, and was struck by the ease and naturalness with which he quoted Classical writers. Here, watch him doing it in an unscripted speech when announcing Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. Educated men throughout the West could do that for many centuries, up until just recently. Obama and Goldberg are of the first generation who can't, and their substitutes are pale, a thin gruel indeed.

Yet the deeper significance of the replacement of ancient story-tellers with ephemeral ones from Tinseltown is that no matter how rational we tell ourselves we are, how coolly analytical of interests and dismissive of emotions, it's ultimately stories we turn to, when called upon to understand the world around us.

And that, to my mind, is the profound flaw in the Obama Doctrine as Goldberg so ably describes it. That it overlooks the true power of stories to trump cool analysis (pardon the pun).

If you've been following the current chapter of violence in Israel, you'll be acutely aware of how it's all about a clash of stories, with Israelis and Palestinians seeing quite different stories when watching the exact same news reports. The 30-years-war currently engulfing the Arab world is about stories, not interests. The collapse of European smugness in the face of refugees with radically different stories is itself because of stories. The rise of Putinism is all about a story, not calculated interests at all. Does anyone think the Iranians are listening to the same stories the Americans are?

Anyone who has ever watched an advertisement on TV should be aware of this.


Derick Schilling said...

Here's some interesting background on Robert F. Kennedy's engagement with Classical Greek writers, which came about in the depths of his grief over his brother's assassination:

milton said...

I skimmed the Goldberg article and was also struck by the preference for popular culture references over more classical ones. It was put to me that perhaps this makes the article accessible/readable for a wider audience - do you buy into this?

Avigdor said...

After reading your piece, Yaacov, I happened to be listening to episodes of Aspen Ideas podcast, and this started playing.

Apparently, in 1987, E.D. Hirsh wrote a book called "Cultural Literacy", subsequently updated in 1993 and 2002, with a list of all cultural references he felt constituted a basis for American cultural life.

Here's an article in the Atlantic about the book and implication for culture wars in America.